י״א בסיון ה׳תשע״ט (June 14, 2019)

Bekhorot 58a-b: Ben Azzai and the Sages

In the Mishna on yesterday’s daf there was a difference of opinion among of the Mishna with regard to the exact date of establishing the animal tithe around the time of Rosh HaShana. Due to this disagreement, ben Azzai suggests that all animals born in the month of Elul should be viewed as a single group for the purpose of tithing.

The Gemara on today’s daf asks why ben Azzai suggests a compromise rather than choosing to rule like one of the opinions based on its merits. In response to the suggestion that perhaps ben Azzai was unable to ascertain the basis for each opinion, the Gemara retorts that it is taught in a baraita that ben Azzai was known to say: ‘All the Sages of Israel appear to me as garlic peel, except for this bald one.’ Ultimately the Gemara concludes that the differences of opinion in the Mishna were not based on logical arguments but on oral traditions, which could not be clarified by means of rational reasoning.

The commentaries ask how ben Azzai could possibly have claimed in such a callous manner to be smarter than the rest of the Sages, given his statement in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:3) “Do not scorn any man.” Some suggest that he was simply stirring up his students in an attempt to encourage them to labor at their studies, as he did with his own. The Iyyun Ya’akov suggests that ben Azzai’s statement was a metaphor for his relationship with the Sages, for while he was as sharp as garlic and able to delve into the deepest mysteries of the Torah, it was the Sages whose constant vigilance protected him from error, much as the peel protects the garlic. He pointed to the ‘bald one,’ i.e., Rabbi Akiva, as the only one who could study the mysteries of the Torah without need for such protection.